Smile Politely

Social belonging, self-esteem, and mental health in teen girls: A conversation with Dr. Karen Rudolph

A white woman with shoulder length brown hair is seated in front of a painted mural of a brain. She is wearing a sleeveless flowered shirt.
Beckman Institute website

Beckman researcher Karen Rudolph got her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is now a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois. Her research is focused on developmental psychology. More specifically, she studies how certain  attributes and life experiences affect the way humans grow and adapt over the course of childhood and adolescence. Rudolph is currently leading a study that demonstrates how negative past experiences influence teenage girls’ sense of social belonging, self-esteem, and mental health. The results can be found in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

I was fortunate enough to interview Rudolph and hear what she had to say about her research experience and career.

Smile Politely: What motivated you to take part in this study?

Karen Rudolph: For many years I’ve been studying adolescent mental health, trying to understand why in particular girls tend to be more at risk for emotional disorders during adolescence. We know that teenage girls in general have a need to belong to social groups. It’s a part of the teenage years where you become tuned in to your peers and want to fit in. We wanted to understand why some girls might have their self-worth more dependent on peer approval and belonging to a peer group. We thought it was possible that when they’d experienced bullying, exclusion, or other kinds of peer adversity earlier in life, they were being deprived of this need. We thought that might make them susceptible to the need to gain approval and to see that they’re fitting in with a peer group later on.

We use a metaphor developed by a psychologist named Wendy Gardner, which suggests that being deprived of positive social relationships creates a feeling of “social hunger. When we’re hungry, we want to eat, we want to snack, and we might eat things that aren’t good for us. So, when we’re deprived of social connections, we might “socially snack” and might be willing to accept any type of social feedback or any kind of social interaction we can get just to fulfill that need. We thought this could potentially be very harmful to girls because they might be more likely to give in to peer pressure just to fit in. If you feel this extreme need for belonging, you might be more vulnerable to emotional problems like anxiety and depression. So, we really wanted to understand how being deprived of positive social experiences earlier in life could influence this need.

SP: What is the main goal of your research? Do you have any topics that you generally like to focus on?

Rudolph: There are two areas that we’re focusing on. One is understanding where these needs come from. We’re also looking at whether early experiences of social adversity influence how adolescent girls process social information in the brain. Ultimately, we’re hoping to use this work to inform prevention programs aimed at redirecting adolescent girls toward healthier pathways.

SP: What brought you to pursue a career at U of I specifically?

Rudolph: The nature of the psychology department. It’s an incredibly well-respected and productive department. We have an incredible breadth of knowledge in the department and a very high level of collegiality. It’s just a very supportive environment to work in.

SP: What sparked your interest in studying developmental psychology?

Rudolph: I’ve always been fascinated by how different children develop. There are two kinds of approaches in developmental psychology. One is understanding how kids develop in general. Like when do kids typically reach certain milestones or develop certain skills? I was always more interested in why kids develop so differently. What causes kids to follow different pathways? I think that was just something I became interested in very early on. I always think of research as being like a detective; figuring out the important questions to ask and how you go about answering them. I always found that process really satisfying.

SP: What is it like covering a somewhat sensitive topic for some teens… and what is it like working directly with those affected?

Rudolph: For the most part, I have found that both teenagers and their parents are remarkably candid about topics related to mental health. I think in a way, especially if somebody’s been struggling with mental health issues, they’re often almost relieved that what they’re experiencing is not actually out of the norm.

Certainly, you need a level of sensitivity to what they’re going through. But mostly, we have found that they seem relieved and happy to talk to us about their experiences and to share things that they often haven’t really shared with anybody in the past.

SP: What steps would you take to help adolescents find their internal self-worth?

Rudolph: I think one of the most important steps is having them learn to establish a sense of self-worth that’s more internally motivated; finding aspects of themselves that are controllable, like “Are you a good friend?” “Do you help other people out?” “Do you have goals that you set and then work really hard to achieve?” They have control and can decide for themselves if they’re meeting their goals, rather than having self-worth that’s tied up in what other people think of them. It’s hard for teenage girls to think “Oh, don’t worry about what other kids think!” Although, I do think it’s really important to get them to that place.

SP: Sometimes it’s easy to let bad experiences take over our lives. What coping mechanisms would you recommend to people of all ages?

Rudolph: There are a number of coping mechanisms that have been found to be pretty effective. One of them is what we call cognitive reframing, which is taking a situation that may not be ideal and finding a way to reframe it and to think about an aspect of the situation that maybe isn’t as bad or maybe something that they’re learning from the situation. Rather than ruminating and focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, try and think about other parts that are more positive. Active problem-solving is also found to be effective if it’s something you have some control over, and seeking support from other people when you feel like you don’t have the resources to cope. Looking for someone to talk to, to get advice, or even to just get comfort is usually a very effective strategy.

SP: What lessons do you think could be learned by those following the study?

Rudolph: Some people have the belief that kids will be kids. That they’re going to bully each other and are going to have problematic experiences with their peers. That it’s a part of growing up and that it’s no big deal. Some would even say it toughens you up. What we’re finding is that these experiences don’t actually toughen you up and they put you more at risk later on. We can’t be willing to accept them as normative and just allow them to happen because of these long-lasting effects on kids.

Also, just trying to help teenagers reframe how they think about themselves and what they base their self-worth on. Realize that there are ways to develop a positive sense of self. Some you have no control over and some you have a lot of control over, so try to focus on those that you can control.

SP: What was the most interesting thing you’ve learned?

Rudolph: I’ve been amazed at our findings related to early experiences. That kids who have or haven’t been exposed to peer adversity show differences in the way the brain processes information later on in life, which have potentially long-lasting implications for their adjustment not just during adolescence, but adulthood as well.

SP: If you could turn into any animal what would it be?

Rudolph: Probably a dog. I just think their connection with humans is really special.

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